IBM announces Watson-powered ads that think

The new “cognitive ads,” launching this fall initially through IBM's The Weather Company, enable consumers to conduct brand-related conversations with the Jeopardy winner.

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Welcome to the age of cognitive advertising.

IBM’s The Weather Company is today announcing Watson Ads that enable consumers to conduct remote brand-related conversations with this expert computer, via free-form text or voice.

“We believe this will transform advertising,” Weather Company global head of sales Jeremy Steinberg told me.

I saw remote demos of a couple of prototypes, although no images are yet available for the public. In one, for allergy medicine Flonase, a consumer can type any question, such as: “Is this safe for my son?” The HTML5 ad, available for desktop or mobile browsers or apps, opens up to allow more screen space once interaction begins. Watson remotely returns the appropriate, detailed answer.

Users can interact via typing or voice-recognition through their device’s microphone, and one assumes that Watson Ads will eventually talk back. The demos showed text responses.

I asked Steinberg if a brand might be concerned that Watson could generate some answer that offends or misinforms a potential customer. He said the brand creates a library of material, from which Watson assembles the “curated answer.”

But it’s not simply parsing for keywords, he said, and not simply returning pre-defined segments, as a bot might. Watson is actually making sense of the question, which is the key reason IBM is touting this as a new category of cognitive ads.

Steinberg pointed out that Watson — who, after all, took down Jeopardy human champions and is now making his living by undertaking such challenges as fighting disease — can reason, learn, decipher intent, understand natural language and figure out how a brand is being perceived.

In another prototype ad, this one for sandwich sauce Manwich, the consumer can type in any ingredient, and ask, “What can I make for dinner using Manwich and these ingredients?”

“Nothing’s off the table”

Watson returns appropriate recipes on the fly, based on what he has learned as a result of the Chef Watson project. That is, he has learned/is learning how human taste works, and what ingredient combinations would make a tasty meal. The recipes, Steinberg pointed out, are created on the spot.

This kind of unique interaction could mean that ads become so valuable ad blockers risk missing the best original recipe they ever had. Essentially, it moves ads almost completely away from being messages, to becoming branded intelligent interactions with an unseen expert.

Although Watson is generally considered at the pinnacle of remote intelligence, remote agents like Siri, Cortana, Alexa and newcomers like Viv might eventually challenge that position and make such cognitive marketing more widespread.

When the ads launch in a beta phase in the fall, they will be available initially only for Weather Company properties — the Weather Channel and Weather Underground — and initially only for advertising from selected brands, including Unilever, Campbell’s Soup and GSK Consumer Health.

Steinberg said he expected other advertisers to participate in cognitive ads, although the company is not ready to say if Watson ad tech will generally be available across the industry. He also pointed to opportunities for cognitive ads in TV, social search and other channels.

“Nothing’s off the table,” he said.

These are just some of the areas that Steinberg indicated IBM is still figuring out. To help, it will create a Watson Ads Council of marketers as a “sounding board,” including the initial participating brands.

The ads can be targeted through location or local weather, as well as with third-party targeting data. While such cognitive ads are expected to generate reams of new kinds of data, he said there are no plans currently to add this kind of cognitive graph to users’ ad-targeting profiles.

And since the ads have not yet entered the beta phase, there are no stats yet about whether they are actually more effective than regular ads for, say, selling stuff.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Barry Levine
Barry Levine covers marketing technology for Third Door Media. Previously, he covered this space as a Senior Writer for VentureBeat, and he has written about these and other tech subjects for such publications as CMSWire and NewsFactor. He founded and led the web site/unit at PBS station Thirteen/WNET; worked as an online Senior Producer/writer for Viacom; created a successful interactive game, PLAY IT BY EAR: The First CD Game; founded and led an independent film showcase, CENTER SCREEN, based at Harvard and M.I.T.; and served over five years as a consultant to the M.I.T. Media Lab. You can find him at LinkedIn, and on Twitter at xBarryLevine.

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